Hollywood is a lousy history teacher, and Tinsel Town would have it no other way. That’s why “based on a true story” actually translates to “scripted vaguely from a complex historical event that has been shamelessly oversimplified to give a dashing American hero full credit for saving the day, while ensuring the director can film a gratuitous car chase on an airport tarmac.”
Of course this is true of Argo, applauded around the world: Did you actually think Ken Taylor would indiscreetly greet Ben Affleck’s character with the phrase “G-Man” at the embassy door? Or that one of the most clandestine operations of the era involved an airline employee confirming their tickets at the very second our hero and his fictional film crew arrived to board the plane?
This is what Hollywood does with history: Shines and buffs it up until the story sounds true enough, but not so true the audience falls asleep. And why complain about Americans making themselves central to the story? We should be used to it by now; they’re like the loud, but charming, friend who always has to be the centre of attention at the party.
As Canadians, we’re entitled to feel huffy about our downplayed role, and former ambassador Ken Taylor has, once again, set the story straight in The Globe. (Affleck’s character, Tony Mendez, staying up late to doctor those Canadian passports? As if.)
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has also gone public in lauding Taylor as the “main hero” for “orchestrating the whole process.”
But hey, at least Canada received a millisecond of a shout-out from Affleck when he accepted the best picture Oscar on Sunday night.
Pity then the poor British, who, along with “the Kiwis,” get one passing mention in the movie – a reference to “turning away” the U.S. embassy workers. (The audience is left to imagine the door slamming on their faces with the angry crowd stalks them like a zombie horde. Perhaps that scene was left on the editing floor.)
British complaints about the movie, expressed last year, are being repeated now that the film has won yet another top award. The Daily Mail calls it “yet another piece of Hollywood’s Brit-bashing junk history that casts us in a poor light.”
The article goes on to cite a few other egregious examples, most notably Saving Private Ryan, another best-picture nominee that “effectively presented D-Day as an exclusively American effort,” and U-571, which depicted the U.S. navy saving the war effort by capturing a code-breaking machine, when it was actually British and Polish seamen who accomplished the daring deed. Perhaps the real concern is that too many people are getting their only history lessons from Hollywood.
The true story of the Iranian hostage taking, as the Daily tersely observes, is that the British did offer sanctuary to the Americans, even though their embassy was also surrounded by a mob, and their own staff at risk. The U.S. workers were given refuge overnight in a British embassy residence, as the country’s papers made clear last fall, until that residence also appeared to be in danger. Only then, according to the Telegraph, were the Americans moved to the relative safety of the Canadian embassy, where Taylor and his crew kicked into hero mode.
Affleck, who starred and directed, has defended the movie’s portrayal, saying he told the story “as best I can, factually,” by which, he presumably means, the best he could without boring footage of embassy workers running to and fro. These “facts” would have cut into those really exciting action-movie tropes: the near-missed phone call, the last-minute presidential signature and, yes, the gun-toting guards fruitlessly chasing an airplane.
Fiction it may be, but not even British audiences could resist. After all, at this year’s BAFTA awards, Britain’s equivalent of the Oscars, guess which “Brit-bashing” movie won Best Picture?